Bigfoot Encounters

Bigfoot Outlives the Man Who Created Him

January 3, 2003

SEATTLE, Jan. 2 - No region in the country has a lower percentage of churchgoers than the Pacific Northwest. But ask people here about the existence of a camera-resistant, grooming-challenged, upright biped known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch and the true believers shout to the misty heavens in affirmation.

So it came as a considerable blow when the children of Ray L. Wallace announced that their prank-loving pop had created the modern myth of Bigfoot when he used a pair of carved wooden feet to stomp a track of oversized footprints in a Northern California logging camp in 1958. Mr. Wallace, 84, died on Nov. 26 at a nursing home in Centralia, Wash.

"This wasn't a well-planned plot or anything," said Michael Wallace, one of Ray's sons. "It's weird because it was just a joke, and then it took on such a life of its own that even now, we can't stop it."

Bigfoot defenders, including at least two scientists and a clinical psychologist who says he ran into the Big Guy two years ago in southern Oregon, are undeterred.

They give Mr. Wallace credit for the hoax, which led to news stories around the world and began thousands of campfire debates. But, they say, other evidence is too strong to let a prank kill something that has become ingrained in the culture.

And, curiously, the death of the original Bigfoot comes at a time when he has been making more appearances than Elvis.

In the Northwest, the hirsute hominid, who dates to American Indian lore as Sasquatch, is a minor industry. A publisher - Sasquatch Books - and an N.B.A. team mascot - Squatch of the Seattle Supersonics - are both named for the ape-like primate. Several organizations host regular conferences on the subject. There are field guides for tracking Bigfoot, music tapes and CD's with his sounds (a low, heavy-breathing moan, not unlike a winded Homer Simpson), and innumerable works of art inspired by his shaggy essence.

To say that Bigfoot is dead, and existed only as a set of wooden feet, is like saying there is no serpent in the depths of Loch Ness, or that Babe Ruth did not lay a curse on the Red Sox after being sold to the Yankees.

"All it means is that Ray Wallace is dead, not Bigfoot," said Dr. Wolf Henner Fahrenbach, a zoologist in the Portland area who is retired from the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center.

Mr. Wallace loved to play jokes, and no prank was bigger than the one he put together in 1958 outside a logging camp in Humboldt County, Calif. Though some Bigfoot believers had long suspected that Mr. Wallace created the tracks, he kept his secret, and his family never confirmed it until his death.

Michael Wallace said his father had a friend carve the feet. Then he had a truck drive him slowly, to create a large gait, as he stomped the prints in the ground. It created a sensation in the press and made Humboldt County prime habitat and ground zero for hunters and hoaxers alike.

Dr. Fahrenbach has tried to prove - by DNA analysis of hair samples - that Bigfoot is a species heretofore unknown to science. To date, he has come up empty, which he attributes to fragmented DNA.

But Dr. Fahrenbach has done an extensive analysis of 706 footprints, and has concluded that the average length of the animal's foot is 15.6 inches and that an adult Sasquatch can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.

"Sasquatch feet grow in substantial excess of general body dimensions," Dr. Fahrenbach wrote in one study. "Hence the justifiable moniker Bigfoot."

It may seem remarkable that Ray Wallace's staged footprints, which appear to have launched the term
"Bigfoot" into popular idiom, were within an inch or so of the other prints, but Dr. Fahrenbach is unfazed.

"I've gotten close enough to smell him," said Dr. Fahrenbach, recounting a backpacking trip to a remote
valley in the North Cascades of Washington. How did he know precisely what eau de Sasquatch smelled
like? "I didn't at the time," he said, "but I was later able to match the smell with other descriptions."

Nor has the Wallace family's revelation altered the views of Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University in Pocatello. Dr. Meldrum is perhaps the only active academic supporter of Bigfoot, a position that he said had brought everything from open ridicule to curious sympathy from his colleagues.

Dr. Meldrum said he was a skeptic until he saw Bigfoot prints, then began collecting and analyzing them. Some are easily identified as hoaxes, he said, but other defy explanation.

"What concerns me about the Ray Wallace story is that it puts a damper on legitimate researchers," Dr. Meldrum said."They're seen as kooks or cranks. But what it actually does is steel them all the more."

Dr. Meldrum and Dr. Fahrenbach may have some academic investment in Bigfoot, but Dr. Matthew Johnson, a clinical psychologist from Grants Pass, Ore., said his conviction could not be dismissed as scholarly bias.

Dr. Johnson said he was too big - 6 feet 9 inches tall - too educated, and too familiar with the outdoors after living in Alaska for years to be fooled by some guy in an ape suit, or a logger with wooden feet.

"I've never had a U.F.O. encounter and have not seen the Loch Ness monster," he said. "I was just a husband and father out for a hike."

Two years ago, while hiking with his family in the Oregon Caves National Monument, Dr. Johnson said, he ventured off to the side of a trail, looked up to some trees and stared, eye to eye with Bigfoot. He reported his find to the National Park Service.

"Ray Wallace may have indeed hoaxed his own tracks," Dr. Johnson said. "But I can guarantee you that Ray Wallace was not walking around in a nine-foot Bigfoot suit in the Oregon Caves at the age of 82. What I saw was real."

Since the encounter, Dr. Johnson, now president of the Southern Oregon Bigfoot Society, has led numerous outings to feed and track Bigfoot. He leaves bananas and husked corn for the animal.

What nearly all Bigfoot stories lack is proof: a skeleton or a body, or a picture or film beyond dispute. Bigfoot is among the most camera-elusive of beings.

Supporters note that it is rare to find a carcass or skeleton of a grizzly bear in the wild. True. But grizzlies have never escaped photographic documentation. What remains as the Holy Grail for believers is a home movie made in 1967 by an amateur Bigfoot hunter, Roger Patterson, who has since taken his secret to the grave. Filmed in the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California, not far from where Ray Wallace laid his tracks, the short film shows a bewildered-looking apeman walking upright, while glancing at the camera.

The film has its believers, Dr. Meldrum and Dr. Fahrenbach among them. And it has its detractors, including Cliff Crook, who has sought the mythic beast for 45 years.

"I get beat up for saying this, but the Patterson film is a fake," Mr. Crook, who heads a group of like-minded enthusiasts called Bigfoot Central from his home near Seattle.

He is not moved by the Ray Wallace family confession. "Most of us knew he had faked those tracks," Mr. Crook said.

So they soldier on, tramping through the woods, spreading bananas and taking plaster casts of tracks, sniffing the air for a telltale stench of something that has gone a long time without bathing.

"We're feeling pretty confident we're going to have irrefutable scientific proof," Dr. Johnson said. "It's just a matter of time."

To all the searchers, the Wallaces say Godspeed. "As long as Dad was alive, he was Bigfoot," Michael Wallace said. "He may be gone, but I still think people should keep looking."
- ---

Subject: Article: Bigfoot Outlives the Man Who Created Him
Date: Friday, January 03, 2003 5:25 AM

Copyright New York Times

Back to What's New?
Back to Newspaper & Magazine Articles

Portions of this website are reprinted under the
Fair Use Doctrine of International Copyright Law as educational material
without benefit of financial gain.
This proviso is applicable throughout the entire website.